One week after nine Turkish activists died in an Israeli flotilla raid aboard the Mavi Marmara flagship, a much smaller Gaza-bound vessel named after deceased American activist Rachel Corrie was intercepted without casualities.
As the "MV Rachel Corrie" sought to break through the Israeli naval blockade, Corrie’s parents sent an e-mail to supporters asking for help in ensuring the ship’s safe passage. The e-mail also expressed grave concerns over who would lead the investigation of the Mavi Marmara tragedy. "Our family’s own experience has made it all too painfully clear that the Israeli military is unable or unwilling to adequately investigate itself," it said.
Rachel Corrie came to Gaza with the International Solidarity Movement, one of the organizations that helped to organize the flotilla. In March of 2003, the 23-year-old was crushed by a sixty-four-ton Israeli bulldozer while seeking to defend a Palestinian home from demolition.
Like the flotilla tragedy, Corrie’s death was the subject of international media scrutiny and high-level diplomatic attention. Yet, apparently unfazed by this pressure, the Israeli military led an investigation that was widely rebuked by American government officials.
At the time Corrie lived in Rafah, Gaza, entire neighborhoods in this refugee camp along the Egyptian border were being razed by the Israeli army. A 2004 Human Rights Watch report found that more than 16,000 people—more than 10 percent of Rafah’s population—lost their houses over a four-year period.
The Israeli military argued that some of the houses protected entrances to smuggling tunnels that brought weapons used against Israelis. In the year Corrie was killed, at least twenty-five Palestinian suicide bombers, most of whom came from the West Bank, murdered Israeli civilians. Additionally, more than 1,000 crude, unguided rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza, according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Then and now, Israeli strikes typically kill far more civilians than militants, and Palestinian casualties vastly outnumber Israeli casualties.
From the beginning, US officials had viewed Corrie’s death with concern. The day after she was killed, the head of the Israeli military investigative team received a note from the Israeli government about this "very sensitive" matter. The note referenced a conversation between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who promised a "thorough, credible and transparent" investigation. A year later, Colin Powell’s chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, wrote a letter to the Corrie family stating "without equivocation" that the military probe did not meet these standards. He advised the family to use the Israeli court system.
After many years of Israeli government foot-dragging, the Corrie family is getting a hearing in an Israeli civil court, where they are seeking at least $300,000 in damages. The Israeli government alleges that the bulldozer operators could not see Corrie, who acted in "reckless disregard" for her own life by interfering in a war zone. The Corrie family alleges that the operators either killed Rachel intentionally or displayed "gross negligence" in failing to protect civilians.
Testimonies given so far in the trial, which opened in March and is in recess until September, suggested a military probe weighted to clear the army of culpability.
An Israeli doctor admitted that he performed Corrie’s autopsy in defiance of a court order requiring that a US embassy official be present at the post-mortem. An eyewitness testified that an Israeli investigator had refused to transcribe some of what she said in her interview. One of the three soldiers responsible for the investigation field work conceded that it was "a mistake" not to visit the site of Corrie’s death, "but there were security limitations." The soldier also testified that, while questioning one of the two bulldozer operators, an IDF colonel cut off the interview on the orders of an IDF general.
Yet to be discussed in the trial is the Corrie family’s longstanding demand to view six hours of unedited color video from a camera that was mounted on the bulldozer. The Israeli military has provided fourteen minutes of black-and-white video with incomplete audio. During the minutes that Corrie was killed, the camera pans away from the scene and films inconsequential footage of the Egyptian border. This has caused some to suspect that video may have been edited or deleted.
The Corrie family’s civil court case—and now the flotilla tragedy—comes amid ongoing, fiery debates within Israel over the controversial UN Goldstone Report, which accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes during last year’s Gaza hostilities. The Israeli government has rebuked the report’s call for both Hamas and Israel to form independent investigative bodies.
Some Israeli nongovernmental organizations believe that military-led investigations are often superficial. "[Israeli troops] on the ground know that they can pretty much get away with anything," said Lior Yavne, research director at Yesh Din, an Israeli NGO that monitors Israeli military investigations. Yesh Din reports that between 2003 and 2009, about 6 percent of military investigations into alleged military misconduct against civilians yielded indictments. Since 2003, Israeli soldiers and officers have been convicted in connection with five deaths. In all but one case, the convictions were for negligence-related offenses.
The single exception was a manslaughter conviction for the killing of British activist Tom Hurndall. Like the Corries, the Hurndall family utilized all the diplomatic and media leverage they could muster. Their efforts yielded an eight-year prison sentence for a low-ranking sniper, who said at his military tribunal that the Israeli army "fires freely in Rafah."
Now the world will be watching as Israel investigates itself once again, this time through a nonmilitary flotilla inquiry commission headed by a retired Israeli judge. The team, which includes two international observers, is charged with determining the international legality of the decision to board the Mavi Marmara. Since the commission is not entitled to interview the commandos, questions about the precise chain of events that led to the deaths of nine Turkish activists will likely remain unanswered.